Monday, February 27, 2012

What the Funk?

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, currently has an exhibit of artifacts relating to the Egyptian King Tutankhamun, or Tut, as his pals called him, or Funky Tut, as Steve Martin referred to him in that eponymous golden oldie “King Tut.”  What is a “funky Tut”?  What, for that matter, is “funk”? 

As it turns out, there are two kinds of funk. One means “a state of extreme fear” or “depression,” either emotional or economic. This funk derives from the Flemish word fonck (“agitation, distress”) and was first noted in English as Oxford slang around 1743.  This kind of funk is sometimes known as a “blue funk”—and has nothing to do with Martin’s views of Tut.   (A 14th-century Middle English but now obsolete funk meant a “spark.”)

Funky Tut is more than likely a reference to the kind of funk derived from the dialectical French funquer (“to give off smoke”), which was applied to certain popular music in the early 20th century.  Funky, meaning “having a strong, offensive odor, like smoke or cheese” has been in use since 1784.

Another view says that funky has semantic roots in the Kikongo word lu-fuki, meaning “bad body odor,” which was emblematic of work of great integrity, requiring great exertion, i.e. perspiration.  Those who were lu-fuki (or funky) were energetic, positive, sweaty achievers with B.O.

As applied to African-American jazz music, around the turn of the century, funky (and the back-formation noun funk) referred to an honest, earthy, back-to-basics sound. The word later evolved to mean “groovy, mellow, deeply felt, sexy, rhythmic, syncopated, danceable,” always with a strong carnal quality.  By the 1950s, the term was being applied more broadly to jazz music, especially soul and rhythm-and-blues.

Time Magazine in 1954 referred to “funky, authentic, swinging blues, down to earth, smelling of earth.” Funky evolved further in the 1960s when it acquired the broad sense of “stylish, authentic, eccentric, or excellent.”

So there you have King Tut—groovy, mellow, sexy, stylish, and probably, after all these thousands of years, smelling pretty bad, as well.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has emerged from his funk—more of a puce funk than a blue one—to deposit these words in a funky little pile:

            What ever became of the great Guy Lombardo?
            By now he’d be older by far than Don Pardo.
            His music was sweet,
            Just like cream of wheat,
            And earned him pots full of big-buck, super-star 

            But now the hot music we hear is called crunk,
            Not too long ago we all knew it as funk,
            It may be progressing,
            But not with my blessing--
               I’m afraid it’s becoming electronic junk.

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